Boris’ Brexit speech – Right message, wrong messenger

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Boris Johnson’s speech at Policy Exchange today marks the first of a series of government speeches on Brexit. The aim, presumably, is to present to the country the impression of a government united behind a single, strategic vision of Brexit.

Johnson’s task today was to provide reassurance to those remain voters concerned by the government’s approach to Brexit by tackling common fears surrounding the process and providing a comforting, ‘liberal’ vision of Brexit for the country to unite behind. In the context of a divisive, ideologically driven debate, the message of conciliation towards remain voters is an important one and one that has been neglected by the government so far. But the nuance and sincerity required of delivering such a message makes Boris Johnson an odd choice of messenger.

The Foreign Secretary’s personal brand is not what it once was – tarnished as it is by long list of gaffes and blunders – but, even in his political prime, Johnson would never be anyone’s first choice to deliver a message of conciliation. Due to his well-known personal ambition and his occasionally debatable belief in what he actually stands for, Johnson is incapable of delivering a message with any real integrity. Johnson’s strength has always been his blustering charm and obstreperous wit, a manner that has lost its charm over the years as it has descended into caricature. But his historic strength is also his greatest weakness; his tendency to prevaricate invites journalists and commentators to question the substance beneath his bluster. This is a problem when the underlying substance of his argument is already paper-thin.

Johnson’s grand ‘liberal’ vision of Brexit relies heavily on optimism and gut instinct. While the provenance and accuracy of much of the analysis warning of economic ruin caused by leaving the EU’s single market is open to dispute, at least it masquerades as scientific. Johnson’s arguments derive solely from rhetoric. He didn’t even mention one of the most intractable obstacles to Brexit negotiations: Northern Ireland’s border arrangements in the event that the UK leaves the customs union. If his genuine aim was to reach out to remain voters and provide reassurance, his message will have fallen flat.

The Brexit referendum campaign was one of the most divisive campaigns in recent political memory. It pitted old against young, north against south, spawned a new political lexicon containing such terms of abuse as ‘remainiacs’ and ‘remoaners’, and has seen Brexit supporting cabinet minister receiving death threats. The government needs to engage with the electorate in a more collaborative and consensual fashion. Using set-piece speeches to at least acknowledge the concerns of remain voters is an important start, but Boris Johnson is not the right person to be bearing the message.